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A family run Detroit charter leads among elementary, middle schools

Rev. Havious Green was a preacher and a school teacher.

He taught in Detroit Public Schools for 30 years and had eight children - all girls - five of whom earned doctorate degrees and the three of whom are medical doctors.

Green and his wife, Julia, took what they knew about the importance of education and started Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center Academy in 1972, first as a small private daycare center that taught the children of Detroit educators and leaders.

Today it is a public charter school with 350 preschool through eighth-graders, 92 percent of whom are economically-disadvantaged. Yet many are on track to be high achievers. In Bridge’s first ever Academic State Champs ranking of individual schools in Michigan, MLK academy is rated No. 1 in Michigan at the elementary- and middle-school levels, in a formula that combines academic performance and student income levels.

The school principal, Constance Price, talks a lot about the founders, her parents, when she explains what's special about the acclaimed, small school on Appoline St. near the Lodge Freeway on the city's west side.

"They had a work ethic," Price said. "Work hard."

In achieving its ranking, MLK elementary schoolers beat out 1,209 elementary schools in Michigan, while MLK middle schoolers beat out 610 middle schools. This doesn’t mean MLK has the highest test scores, far from it. It means that it did a tremendous job exceeding expectations when compared with peer schools with similar poverty levels.

See our methodology and answers to frequently asked questions. Want more? Here’s an MLive video explainer.

Price credits a foundation of test preparation, monthly professional development and arts education for the school's success - in recent years it also has been named a "Beating the Odds" school by the Michigan Department of Education and honored as one of the city's best schools by Excellent Schools Detroit, an advocacy group.

Spread across a cluster of three small buildings, MLK remains a Mom and Pop shop. Price's parents started it, and now she and her husband run it. Their son is a dean for the middle school. Price's daughter taught there for about a decade.

Carol Blevins, whose son, daughter and step-granddaughter boast an MLK education, said the school feels like a big family. Blevins knows plenty about public schools in the Detroit area ‒ in her search for a good school, she has enrolled her children in DPS, suburban and charter schools.

"I don't like this school, I love it," Blevins said. "They give homework every night and parents have to sign to say they saw it. They give kids extra attention. It's close-knit. They want the best for kids, and so do I."

Winning stats

Bridge Magazine’s fourth annual Academic State Champs report ranks Michigan’s schools and school districts from best to worst, based on test scores and income levels of students, as determined by the percent of children eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch. The rankings differ from the Michigan Department of Education's "Top to Bottom" rankings because the state does not take into account income.

Generally, and unfortunately, school and district academic performance rises and falls with the income status of students. As Bridge showed last week when our school district rankings were released, some school districts with the highest raw test scores (Bloomfield Hills, Okemos, Forest Hills) are in wealthy communities, and many school districts with low scores (such as Detroit, Flint and Saginaw) are in poor areas.

The Academic State Champs formula, developed independently by the Lansing-based research firm, Public Sector Consultants, recognizes schools that most significantly outperform peer and schools with similar income levels. As a result, some impoverished schools with lower test scores received higher State Champs rankings because they did a better job outpacing their peers than some more affluent schools. In this respect, State Champs does not reward achievement; it rewards overachievement.

For the family-run MLK school, winning means remaining a high achiever even after it was transformed from a private school for middle-income children into a public school with predominantly economically disadvantaged children.

Price said that each year about 65 percent of MLK eighth-graders pass the test to be accepted into the city’s magnet high schools ‒ Renaissance, Cass Tech and King ‒ which accept students based on merit.

How'd they do that?

MLK was chartered in 1995 and is one of 14 charter schools authorized by Detroit Public Schools. Most of DPS' other charter schools are struggling, which landed DPS on the state superintendent's list last year of 11 charter school authorizers that he is considering suspending from being able to open more charter schools.

More than half of school children in Detroit attend a charter school, making Detroit the second largest charter school district in the nation behind New Orleans.

Overall, Michigan charter schools run the gamut ‒ ranking in the top and in the bottom of 2014 Academic State Champs, struggles that are mirrored in the city’s traditional public schools. Eight of the 11 lowest-ranking elementary schools in the state are traditional Detroit public schools; with two of the bottom 11 being charters located in Detroit.

By contrast, MLK stands out not only for its scores, but its operations.

Most charter schools in Michigan contract with a management company to run operations, but MLK is self-managed, meaning the staff run all operations. Price, the principal, also wears the hat of administrative director over operations.

Not paying management fees means the school has funds for higher teacher pay. Price declined to reveal the pay scale, but said MLK pays less than traditional public schools in DPS, but more than typical charters. MLK also participates in the state teacher pension program while most charters do not.

The pay and pension help with teacher retention, which can be a problem in low-paying charters.

Walking through the halls and peeking into classrooms during a school tour, Price asks teachers, "How long have you been here?" The answers: six years, eight years, 11 years, 20 years.

And with class size at about 20 students or less, teachers have more time to concentrate on helping each child meet state standards.

State standards and test preparation are braided into the MLK curriculum. A six-week summer school session has been used to prepare for the state test. Bulletin boards in classes and the main hallways show students’ names, test scores and target scores.

Teachers split their class list into three tiers based on test scores. They concentrate on helping children boost their weakest skills and pay special attention to those who rank in the bottom tier. Every month, a consultant holds professional development workshops to help teachers improve their instruction.

Darius Bills, a sophomore at Communication & Media Arts High in Detroit, graduated from MLK two years ago. He said the teachers there made sure kids knew what to expect. "With the math, and science and English they were really on us because that's what we were going to be tested on," he said.

Don't call the MLK way of schooling the dreaded "teaching to the test" method ‒ but if you do, Price won't be offended.

"There's some value in (test prep). You're teaching skills they need to know," she said. "But you still have your own content.”

Fill in the blanks

MLK is not all about testing. The school offers French, German, and Spanish classes, ballet for girls and boys, vocal music and after school academic games. Abdoulaye Diouf, who teaches French and German at the school, also teaches soccer.

Price, a violinist trained in the Suzuki method, integrated the art form into the curriculum and subs for the music teacher when needed. Starting in third-grade, students can learn to play cello or violin.

On a recent school day, the strings class performed easy diddies such as "Mary had a little lamb" and more complicated tunes such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" though most students have not learned to read music yet (the Suzuki method teaches students to learn to play music then learn to read it).

Music demands discipline and so do teachers. Half of the teaching staff is male ‒ a result of a conscious effort to recruit more men than typically teach in earlier grades.

"Some children do not see a male in their home everyday. Children at this tender age need male leadership and mentoring," said Lafayette Price, vice principal and the husband of Constance Price. "We thought by bringing in more male teachers, it would improve discipline."

That philosophy is about as old school as the MLK reading program.

In recent years, as the state changed the MEAP test and its scoring system, the school has used the same reading phonics-based program with the expectation that students are fluent readers by the end of kindergarten.

Michael Walker, 5, cannot tie his shoe. But he can spell. The kindergartner's spelling test was one of about 10 taped to the door of his classroom. Price congratulated him on his five perfectly spelled, neatly written three-letter words.

Though the school’s population has changed since its founding as a private school in 1972 ‒ the expectations are the same: work hard, excel. But the shift from educating middle-income children from educated families to educating children from low-income families means making sure the children and the families accept the expectations.

"You have to meet them where they are,” Price said, referring to students and families of all economic backgrounds. “It's hard work, but it works."

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